Saturday, January 11, 2014

Turn and Face the Strange

Her name was Jolie. Why, then, did we persist in calling her Julie? She was my mother's housekeeper for a time, and she sometimes brought her three-year-olds, Tony and Tyisha, to our house. At ten, or eleven, a narcissistic age, I assumed that she brought them for my benefit, but of course she was forced to cart them along when child care was unavailable. I fell hard for the twins, sweet, serious Tony and sunny Tyisha, elfin children both. I can still conjure up the sounds of the blue and purple beads in Tyisha's hair clicking, clacking as she turned cartwheels in the living room. Tony and Tyisha knew the secret language of twins, but they never used it to exclude me or anyone else, being above all generous little souls. Julie - Jolie! - would sometimes ask me if I wanted to put them down for their afternoon nap. Oh, yes I did! I would tuck them into their makeshift bed on the floor and tell them stories until they fell asleep. Even asleep, they smiled. I was smitten.

Then one day Jolie announced that she was moving to Florida. My mother was sad for one reason; I, for quite another. Jolie asked me whether I might like it if the twins slept over at my house one night before the move. But she already knew the answer. I planned for that night in a manner befitting Martha Stewart. Every moment was accounted for, filled by some interesting and educational activity or another. I even planned the twins' dinner. It was grand. The only bump arrived at bedtime, when Tyisha felt homesick and cried. Devastated, I ran to my mother, who knew, in the way of mothers, how to make it better for the little girl. Soon she was asleep.

Fast forward years, six, maybe, and I was on a forced visitation with my father, who'd decided to trade time in someone's condo in Florida for time in his apartment in Paris, and there he and I were in Ft. Pierce, in an old lady's apartment decorated principally with bamboo and loud tropical prints, glass doors sliding onto a tiny patio too hot in any event to touch with bare feet, a postage-stamp pool, and no beach in sight. Florida sans beach with my stranger-father. I wanted to cry. What got me through were letters from my friends, who all seemed to be having better summers than I. My father would suggest a game of tennis, and I'd decline, most often. When I did accept, we'd walk over to the gated community's courts, and I'd whack the ball so hard it would sail over the fence, forcing my dad to leave the court to retrieve it, while I stood in place, smiling grimly. We ate a lot of Campbell's soup, because Stranger-Father, as it happened, didn't know how to cook. I remember talking very little. Once, he mused, "You get so many letters." What to do but nod? Another time he wondered about the Love's Baby Soft I kept on the bureau. Embarrassed, I told him that it was perfume, and promptly turned as pink as the bottle.

We were dying, the two of us, in Ft. Pierce's searing version of August, no facilitator to help us communicate through years of distance. And then I remembered Jolie. One morning I declared that I wanted to visit Jolie and the children, who lived perhaps forty-five minutes north. I was surprised when my dad agreed to take me there; only now do I see that he was as bored and lonely as I was, and this, if nothing else, was something to do. When I telephoned Jolie, she sounded excited by the idea, and gave me directions. Close to her house, the neighborhoods abruptly changed from lushly foliaged gated communities like ours to one-story squat little stucco houses set feet from one another. Closer still, and my father and I were in the unusual position of feeling like outcasts because of our skin color. Elderly black men sitting on their stoops and smoking would scan our car and us in it with slow, languorous eyes, not unfriendly, but not welcoming, either. It seemed hotter here. Chevys and Oldsmobiles - the big old cars - were parked in front of most houses. And here was Jolie's house, at last - pink stucco, and seemingly not much bigger than my bedroom at home. We parked, and my father leaned back, settling himself deep into his seat, and told me that he'd wait for me; I could take as long as I wanted. Nervous, I got out of the car and walked slowly to the house. Jolie threw open the door and hugged me, her smile wide as ever. But behind her I heard yelling. Jolie shrugged helplessly, and called for the twins. But who were these lanky kids? Had I forgotten that Tony and Tyisha would grow up without me? I guess that I had. 

To me they were polite but indifferent, much like my father and I to each other; they didn't remember me. They soon hurried off to the back of the house, back to their games, their lives. Meanwhile Jolie introduced me to the girls' father, who looked less than pleased to meet me. She went to make me an iced tea, and he followed her, leaving me sitting, my hands underneath me, on the edge of a sagging sofa. He was hurling words at her; his tone was low and mean, as if, I thought, he was chastising a pet who'd misbehaved. When she came back, her eyes were filled with tears and apology. "He doesn't want you here," she whispered to me. "I'm sorry, Sarah. Finish your tea, and we'll say goodbye." She squeezed my arm. In the pressure was the hope that I would understand.

I was out of that house in under fifteen minutes, and as I slid into my car seat, my father looked at me expectantly. I shrugged. We were as silent on the return trip as we'd been on the trip out, and when my dad eventually pulled into our parking spot at the condo, I leapt out of the car. "Going to check the mail," I cried, clutching the mail key to my chest like the lifeline it was. Only at the wall of mailboxes, my safe place, did I allow myself to cry.


alejna said...

This tale makes me think so many things. There is so much that is charming, and so much that grips my heart and makes eyes well up. I know that this is one of your stories that will stay with me.

Most of all I find myself thinking that I am so glad that you are writing, and that I get to read your words.

Nicole said...

Oh, my heart.

kim said...

Wow ......I love your stories so much.
( I had Love's Baby Soft on my dresser too) :-)

Christine said...

You touched on so many things here--race, class, fathers & daughters....That time of your life sounds like it was filled with so much turmoil. And, it sounds that at some level you had a warmer relationship with Jolie and the twins. Thanks for sharing this, S.

krista said...

i have to tell you. i don't read blogs anymore. barely. basically, i stopped reading books because i was online all the time and i have finally started to turn that around for my own sanity.
however, i still read yours. and this one, especially, is a perfect example of why.
you fill the same niche for me: the perfectly crafted story. besides, i'm super into memoir/creative nonfiction right now so you are right up my alley.
please write a book.
thank you.

Sarah said...

Thank you, everyone. You make me smile.